Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

The End of Postmodernity? Evolution and the Human Genome Project

Dr. David Keller.

Segmenting the history of an intellectual tradition is notoriously problematic, and defining ‘postmodernity’ is no exception. Nonetheless, a common theme over the last several decades has been that whatever constituted Modernity in the Western intellectual tradition, some kind of rupture occurred, marking the onset of a post-Modern period.

In terms of the philosophy of self, the notion of a self-contained, immutable, supernatural entity, epitomized by the Cartesian res cogitans (or “thinking thing”), has given way to the conception of the self as a dynamic, mutable, and fragmented thing subject to the vagaries of the physical world. Maintaining a naturalistic metaphysics, postmodern thinkers assert that the self does not enjoy the radical autonomy from corporeal flux that Descartes posited; modifying the environment—natural systems and society—is the extent to which humans can affect identity. On the Modern model, the physical world has noting to do with identity; on the post-Modern model, the physical world has everything to do with identity.

To this point, evolutionary history has been determined by the environment selecting individuals best suited for a niche. Now, with our growing ability to manipulate the genetic code, the evolution of possible identities will not be limited by environmental conditions. The ability to alter our biological makeup from the inside out will affect in the most profound sense how we interact with the environment. Thus, it seems probable we will gain the power to alter the process of natural selection itself—both for Homo sapiens and all other biota.

The Human Genome Project resurrects some of the Modern autonomy humans have in self-determination, but does so within a naturalistic worldview. Post-Human Genome Project ontology of the self, I believe, will be neither Modern nor post-Modern; in this sense, the mapping of the human genome will mark the beginning of the end of the post-Modern period.


Dr. David Keller  (United States)
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
Utah Valley State College

David R. Keller is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley State College, where he also serves as Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Director of the Center for the Study of Ethics. His book, The Philosophy of Ecology: From Science to Synthesis, co-authored with ecologist Frank Golley, explores the philosophical issues endemic to ecological science. His work has also been published in BioScience, Humanitas, Teaching Ethics, Environmental Ethics, Interdisciplinary Humanities, Ethics and the Environment, Ecosystem Health, and Terra Nova Books.

  • Human Genome Project
  • Postmodernity
  • Evolution

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)